Prague, 1968: Memory #3
This is the third piece in a series that will, I hope, cover the entire year of 1968 through my own experiences. In it, I recount how I finally made it to the Czech/German border, a couple of weeks before the arrival of the Russian troops who displaced the power of the Dubcek regime. I hope I am, finally, beginning to discover how to make at least a little personal sense of that most peculiar incident in that most peculiar year, and I hope I am doing it for others in these “memories.” The first piece can be found here. The second here.
Most of the traffic on the road, German plates and all, was headed into Cheb and away from the border. So, I walked, as usual. And walked. Later, I learned it was just a little less than twelve kilometers along that road from Cheb to Germany. I don’t think I walked far enough to dry off, but I don’t remember the wet after reaching the road—so I could have.
At any rate, I did walk for at least an hour. I had no watch, but I know I covered a great deal of ground, moving along the side of the road as it eased its way from the lights around the town through fields and then into woods. They were dark woods… well, any unknown woods would be, at night. And they brought back the fears of the afternoon on the train, when I’d imagined I was disappearing towards the Soviet Union. Now, the trees were getting bigger as I shrank.
For some reason, I imagine that the landscape got a little hillier as it grew more forested. Could be. Certainly, I tried to keep as far from the tarmac as I could, away from the lights coming towards me and out of the path of any coming from behind—not that there were any. A child of the times, I imagined the border through the movies I’d seen, not through my own experience, thinking of places like Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, then only a few years old anyhow, and of barbed wire and desperate attempts to escape. I brought images to my head of people mown down a few steps from freedom. Now, I couldn’t help repeating to myself, it was I on the wrong side of the fence.
Over-dramatic? Certainly. But try to walk at night towards the border in an unknown land overshadowed by another hostile to your own. There’s no stopping the images, though I don’t think I was quite afraid, simply extremely worried. At sixteen, fear is tempered by ignorance and inexperience. I could move forward under the protection of both.
At one point, though, I did experience fear, extreme fear. Loud noises came suddenly from off to the right and slightly ahead. Out from the woods sprang a dog as big as a lion pulling a giant carrying a rifle the size of a log. The soldier yelled at me; I froze. Everyone shrank as they neared, and the dog sniffed at me cautiously. I stayed still.
The soldier demanded something, I didn’t know what, but he quickly made clear through gestures that he wanted my papers. I handed over my passport, hand shaking. He glanced through it. Slowly, I reached for the last two of those Russian cigarettes and offered him one. He took it. After a false start (my hands would not hold still), I struck a match successfully and lighted both.
A sound from behind us had us both turning, a loud engine nearing from around the last turn. We watched as a tractor, of all things, neared. The soldier signaled it to stop, spoke with the driver, and motioned for me to climb up behind him. I did. The diesel chugged faster, and we were off.
The driver pulled to a stop at a barrier that could have served for a set for any number of the adventure and war movies so popular then. A phonebooth with an armed man in it under a streetlight and a barrier across the road—a car should have come crashing through, careening down the road towards escape. Instead, all there was was this tractor dropping me off and then circling back the way it had come. I waved. I hadn’t realized the driver had gone out of his way for me.
Ahead, perhaps one hundred meters up a slow incline, were lights and cars, lots of activity. For the first time since I’d been told I had to be out of the country by midnight, I thought it might actually happen, for that had to be the border itself.
The uniformed man in the booth gave me an odd look once he’d recognized my passport as American—or so I imagined. At any rate, immediately after looking at it, he picked up his phone and started speaking. The speaking turned to arguing, then yelling. Finally, he seemed to win, uttering a final word into the instrument then slamming it into its receiver. He turned to me, motioned me around the barrier, and pointed up towards the border. I started walking.
This border station, on the Czech side, seemed like nothing so much as a hyper-active gas station. Though there were few cars—none that I could see, at least—heading towards Germany, they were backed up the other direction. People, I assumed, making a vacation in the country so newly accessible to the West. I walked to the first uniformed person I saw and handed over my passport. He took it and started to walk away. “Wait,” I called. He stopped and turned partially towards me. Apparently he spoke a few words of English. “Where can I change money?” He shrugged and called over his shoulder as he walked away, “Keep. Souvenir.”
After that, no one would talk to me. I sat down on a bench outside the main office where people were milling about, going in and out with papers, directions—I don’t know.
After an hour or so, I got up and approached someone in uniform, afraid I’d been forgotten. “When will I get my passport back? When can I leave?”
“Wait.” He dismissed me. I returned to my seat.
Though I had no watch, I was sure it was now after midnight, but that didn’t bother me: I’d made it to the border. Cars were progressing through, no problem. Even one or two leaving the country. No problem. But for me, it was ‘wait.’ I waited.
Eventually, I got up to stretch my legs, wandering to the other side of the office then back. It was getting chilly, so I stepped inside where it was warmer.
A young man in there was trying, in German as bad as mine, to exchange money with a couple clearly headed into the country. They were looking at him, a little perplexed. Having recognized right away that he had to be another American, I said, “Keep it. They’ll let you take it out. They told me to.”
The instant I spoke, all activity stopped.
No one continued stamping documents. No car trunk, open for inspection was closed. No door, half open, shut. Every official had turned into a statue—except for one thing: All of their eyes were now focused on the two of us.
He looked at me. The German couple slunk away. “Two Americans, here? They must not like that.” He hardly whispered. “Come. Let’s sit down.” He led me back outside and to a bench exactly like the one I’d been sitting on before. Slowly, the guards started working again. Their eyes, however, never left us for long.
“I saw you before,” he said, “but didn’t realize you are an American.”
“Why are they watching us?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been here since six o’clock, and they ignored me completely after taking my passport.”
“They’ve been ignoring me, too.”
“Until now.” He grimaced. “I wish they’d just let us go!”
“How did you get here? Do you have a car?” I knew he didn’t for, like me, he had a backpack. But I asked anyway. How else could he have gotten here?
“I walked for Cheb.”
“You heard me, I walked. I didn’t realize how far it was, but it didn’t take more than a couple of hours.”
“Thing is, well, so did I. Well, part way. Got a ride, finally, on a tractor.”
He grabbed my arm, suddenly excited. At that, all activity once more ceased. He looked around, let go, and leaned back into the bench until things got going again.
“You know what I think?”
“Look, two young Americans, about military age, walk up to a border station, no town with ten klicks… and this is an area where the Russians claim to have found caches of American arms.”
“Shit.” A little preposterous, I though, but scary. “I hope you’re wrong!”
“I’m not, I tell you! I’ll bet they’re searching the whole area, the Czechs are, making sure they find anything before the Russians do!”
“Oh, come on. I doubt that.”
“Then why are they keeping us here? Why not simply let us go?”
I shook my head, unable to answer.
Next, I promise to get myself into Germany (and Nixon nominated as the Republican presidential candidate along the way to Nuremburg).